Sunday, December 27, 2009

Sycamore Row

The Cultural Landscape Foundation recently issued a call for nominations entitled "Every Tree Tells a Story." The email caught my eye because I was preparing a graduate-level teaching project for my urban hydrology assessment class about tree canopy and tree inventories in the urban context. Researchers have found that since 1986, there is a decline of 4 trees for every 1 planted. That is an alarming statistic. Think of all those stories, cut down from our cultural landscapes and cut out of our cultural heritage.

A cultural landscape provides a sense of place and identity. They map our relationship with the land over time; and they are part of our heritage - TCLF. Every tree has a story, its story, to tell. There are close to 50 Sycamores in a row that follow a path from the Iowa State Campus to the City of Ames, IA. Here is their story.

A work crew has been putting up some mega-power poles between campus and the city of Ames.
They have cut a wide swath through a wooded area to the river's edge. What caught my attention was the fact that they were working fairly close to a row of Sycamore trees, Platanus occidentalis, that lined an old rail bed for the historic campus-to-town railway affectionately known as the Dinkey. When I walked the path several weeks ago, I could see they had kept their distance, none of the trees had been lost. On my walk back home, I had one of those revelations we all live for...that AHA! moment when something ignites the synapses of the brain and an idea is born.

This row of Sycamore trees have a story and I will tell you what I know. I had a hunch that with a little research in both the campus and city's archives, I could patch together enough history to nominate Sycamore Row for TCLF's Landslide 2010 "Every Tree Tells A Story" award which
calls attention to the places that embody our shared landscape heritage.

Yesterday, Ev and I walked to the Hub, the spot where the Dinkey originated on the Iowa State campus.. We found one Sycamore due north of the old station. We followed the walkway, once the old railroad bed heading east. We walked until we came upon the old Landscape Architecture Studio Building. This building was the original horse barn on campus until 1929-30 when it was remodeled for sole occupancy by the Landscape Architecture program. Our department is now housed in the College of Design, built in 1979. These trees and their history is woven into the fabric of our campus. These trees are very much a part of this cultural landscape.

With a little digging, I discovered this foto in the old Landscape Architecture Departmental quarterly publication Horizons, dated Summer-Fall, 1930. It shows The Studio and, out front between the path and the Dinkey line, two of these skinny sycamores about 20 feet tall with a girth about the size of a man's fist.

I also found a passage in this same issue relating the contributions of one Prof. A.T. Erwin. "He once had charge of the planting of the campus, and is directly responsible for the planting of a row of Sycamores between the college and Ames along the cinder path. During the early days, this was a straight path without cinders and when the so-call 'Dinkey' came to the campus, a cinder path was provided, and to make a more attractive path these trees were planted."(p.35) When I read this passage, I knew I had unearthed a jewel in the history of these trees.

I became obsessed with this story (mind you, it was now dead week and finals week that this hunt was on!) With further sleuthing, I found this aerial foto from 1974 which shows one lanky Sycamore in the background(due east of the house's double chimney on the right of the foto). It appears to be about 55-60 feet tall with a girth about the size of a person's head.

That afternoon as Ev and I continued on this easterly trek, I snapped more current fotos. This one below is looking down the old Dinkey line toward town. Note the Old LA Studio on the left and that once-lanky Sycamore on the right.

This is the first stretch of these big guys running along the south side of the walkway in front of the LA Studio. Included in that row of trees are a few smaller replacements among the other larger specimens. They are of similar size to those two in the 1970's foto above.

The foto below shows the second stretch of Sycamore Row adjacent to the path running along the south side of Cy-Ride, our current campus transportation link with the city. When I was an undergrad in the 1980's, this path's surface was still covered with cinders and was aptly named the Cinder Path. It sounded a loud crunch with each step. It is now asphalt pavement.

This last foto shows the remainder of Prof. Erwin's plantings that line the old elevated Dinkey rail bed. They grow in the floodplain of Squaw Creek and are spaced about 30 feet apart. I fondly call this entire stretch of the most beautiful Sycamores 'Gown-to-Town on the Ground'.

I will submit this nomination in the next few days, after contacting the city to verify ownership of the land and a university landscape architect and campus planner. I want to give a 'heads-up' that I am about to nominate these trees to call attention to this historical place, this cultural landscape, along the old Dinkey line that runs from our campus to our town. Sycamore Row has a story to tell that embodies our shared landscape heritage and we all need to hear this story.

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